With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Loneliness lives at the edge of town. I visit her now and then. Sometimes I bring a poem I’ve written, though she doesn’t read much poetry. It makes her too sad, she says. My poetry, especially.
“If I do not have peace and joy right now,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “when will I have peace and joy — tomorrow or after tomorrow? Everyone has pain and suffering. The present moment is the only moment in which we can be alive. How wonderful to be alive!” How wonderful to be alive! Can I say that and mean it? Each precious moment hardly feels precious if I’m lost in past or future worlds, or if I’m trying to do two or three things at once — say, eating and reading and listening to the radio, to take one all-too-familiar example. Each precious moment invites my attention. Do I accept the invitation, or do I leave it lying on the table, just one more piece of unopened mail? There it is, addressed to me.
I saw R. at the gym yesterday. He’d been seriously ill, he said: heart trouble. In the midst of his health crisis, he realized that his body was trying to tell him something: his heart was hurting because he’d been neglecting it in favor of his intellect. He promised himself that, from then on, he would listen to his heart before making any important decisions. Now he asks a question; his heart answers; he acts accordingly. He’s never felt better, he said.
I’m learning what it means to tend to my feelings, to be tender with myself in the most fundamental way. This is where some healing can occur. It doesn’t require getting to the roots of my sadness — though I can keep digging if I want to keep digging. I don’t need to condemn my shovel or my little pile of dirt. But the story of my past is the story of my past: nothing less, nothing more. It has its claim on me, but so does the nighttime sky, so do my two gray cats, so does love in its mysterious disguises.
Getting up before dawn opens a door for me. Sometimes the door swings wide; usually it opens just a crack. Still, I’m grateful to be here — even though the darkness makes me a little nervous; even though the loneliness is here with me. So I’m not so alone. There’s the darkness, there’s the loneliness, there’s the clock counting off the minutes, reminding me that this life one day will end. If I keep getting up early to pray and meditate, my life will end on a day I’ve gotten up early to pray and meditate. No protection there. Do I need protection? God comes as birth. God comes as death. Do I believe the in-breath is better than the out-breath?
I was never a devoted follower of the Peanuts comic strip, yet I’m moved by the news of Charles Schulz’s death. Here was a man in love with his work and the characters he’d created. In a career that lasted nearly fifty years, he never missed a daily deadline. He even had a clause in his contract dictating that the strip had to end with his death; no one could continue it. A few months ago, after being diagnosed with cancer, Schulz announced he was going to retire. Last night, on the eve of publication of his final strip, he died. His work and his life ended on the same day.
To stay alive, do I need to understand the mystery I call breathing? Of course not; I just need to breathe. To pray, do I need to understand the mystery I call God?
Despite his success, Charles Schulz struggled all his life with depression and anxiety. “I suppose I have always felt apprehensive and anxious,” he once said. “I have compared it to the feeling that you have when you get up on the morning of a funeral.”
I prayed. It was a simple prayer. I prayed for the willingness to pray. Then I went running. I saw a car with a bumper sticker that read: Just Pray.
I often talk to myself in a harsh, scolding voice. That voice isn’t compassionate. It insists that the real measure of who I am is my sadness, not my experiences of love and joy. It suggests that some huge emotional disaster waits for me, but doesn’t remind me that I’ve survived such disasters; that each moment comes and each moment goes. The voice is my father’s voice and my mother’s voice, my grandfather’s voice and my grandmother’s voice. But my ancestors are dead. I’m the one who speaks to me now, and I’m the one who can learn to speak more respectfully. I have no argument with the ancestors if I choose not to stand here and argue with them.
What would it mean to see God everywhere, even here in my kitchen in North Carolina? If I could see God here, I wouldn’t need to keep looking for God in the eyes of gurus and between the covers of books. After dinner, I’d do the dishes, then step out on the porch and look at the stars. I wouldn’t strain to see God in the distance.